The food forest: A bridge between agriculture and conservation

The volcanic mountains of East Java have a diverse range of ecosystems and cultures. Outside the city of Malang, lies the Bromo-Semuru National Park which is managed by local villagers and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment. The National Park hosts an extraordinary range of life. The high altitude and volcanic activity creates both a cool climate and highly variable rainfall patterns, meaning that jungle, rainforest and savanna grassland can all exist within a few kilometres’ of one another. 

One of the most exciting parts of the park is right on the border, where local agriculture coincides with the National Park’s management plan. A strip of land lies on the volcanic ridges between crops and rainforest. Over the last twenty years, Rangers and locals have worked together to build a food forest. Fruit trees fill the canopy, whilst coffee, chilli and spices grow wild on the forest floor. Eagles can be seen hunting overhead and bright tropical birds call through the hills.

Banana trees line the border of the food forest and Bromo-Semuru National Park

The Bromo-Semuru food forest is an example of agroforestry – an important scientific and policy development in sustainable food production. Agroforestry in its simplest form is growing trees in cropland to prevent erosion. It is not a new practice, having existed in many forms since the very beginnings of agriculture itself.

As modern industrial agriculture drives deforestation, agroforestry is becoming more important than ever. Land clearing for agricultural purposes has had a profound impact on biodiversity and carbon cycling around the world. For small-scale subsistence farmers, like the villagers in East Java, deforestation from industrial agriculture can threaten their livelihoods in a multitude of ways. Large-scale agriculture often out-competes small businesses in the food market. The soil and water degradation – as well as climate change – from such transformational land use required for commercial agriculture impacts on the productivity of local farms. This is, in part, one of the reasons agroforestry is being adopted in local farming practices around the world.

The collaborative nature of the Bromo-Semuru project means that the food forest moves beyond typical agroforestry to create a complex, edible ecosystem. Scientists have worked alongside Rangers and farmers to ensure that the diversity of food growing in the forest is at its maximum – harvesting species that are taking over an area in order to allow different plants to grow.

The structure of the food forest, these are just a few of the species in the forest.

Although the food grown in the forest does not yield enough to be commercial, it supports the crops downhill in the valleys. The food forest stabilises the soil during rain and filters the water running through the crops. It also provides a safety net to the villagers if their crops fail. The forest enables cheap and easy access to a huge diversity of food that the farmers may not otherwise be able to afford. The abundance of food up the hill is a source of resilience to the community.

 As food security and land degradation become even greater challenges in the coming decades, food forests may prove an important source of sustenance to people and ecosystems. The Bromo-Semuru food forest is a living example of how diversity in food can support both people and planet.

Further Reading

UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s State of the World’s Forests (2016), available from: http://www.fao.org/publications/sofo/2016/en/

 M. van Noordwijk (2019) Agroforestry at 40: how tree-farm science has changed the world, available from: https://theconversation.com/agroforestry-at-40-how-tree-farm-science-has-changed-the-world-117090

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